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Verfremdungseffekt at the Beeb! The BBC Henry VI Part One.

May 1, 2017


Although I’m enjoying my grand 2017 rewatch of the official BBC Shakespeare series (1978-1985), I’d agree that generally speaking, most of these productions are not to be listed among ground-breaking or redefining versions of the plays.

But the Henry VI plays are different.   Perhaps it is easier to innovate in the context of rarely performed plays.  Outraged viewers are less likely to write in to complain about their license fee being used to “butcher a classic”.  When you’re treating a play vaguely assumed to be obscure, there’s a sense of license and opportunity that’s provoked.

So we get an adventure playground for a set.  We get shouting and hobby-horses and school bells rung to get attention.  This couplet-dense early Shakespeare play lends itself to a deal of mannered gestic realisation.  Yes, the BBC goes Brechtian and it works.  All of it works.  For this production is all about theatre doing what only theatre can do and we’re never allowed to forget that we are watching actors act.  Simple things – like the doubling of parts assists this sensation.

If I have a slight criticism to make of this production, it’s that the costumes aren’t quite silly enough.  The broad strokes of the set, lighting and even acting aren’t quite reflected consistently in the way the senior characters are dressed.

In many ways, Part One is dominated by two characters.  One is “Talbot” or “The Talbot” or, as a battle cry “A Talbot” – the ferocious warrior who conquers in France wherever he fights but who is eventually overwhelmed and killed along with his son as a consequences of squabbling York and Somerset blaming each other for the failure to reinforce him.  Trevor Peacock is a stroke of genius casting in this role.  Most famously and recently known as the Vicar of Dibley’s mumbling eccentric parisioner, he’s had a strange and eclectic career.  He’s also a gifted songwriter who penned the immortal “Mrs Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter” for Herman’s Hermits.

Trevor Peacock is a rather small man with very energetic hair.  When the French countess who would capture him sees him she exclaims “What! is this the man?” and calls him a silly dwarf.  The imbalance between his immediate physical presence and his reputation assists the a sense of the sheer theatricality of medieval warfare.  Talbot is a man who is nothing more and nothing less than his own over-sized reputation.  He is people shouting his name.  He’s shouty but he’s funny.

Peter Benson is Henry VI.   Peter Benson was nearly 40 when he portrayed this monarch who continually refers to his own “tender years” and need of tutelage.   In a Brechtian context – this works superbly.  Benson’s Henry is a man-boy – an aged child one moment and a childish man the next.

And then there’s Brenda Blethyn as Joan de Pucelle.   When discussion terms to Shakespeare’s “breeches roles”, Joan de Pucelle is rarely discussed.  Of course, notoriously, in Shakespeare’s play, Joan is not a saint but a manipulative witch who has cast a sexual spell on the Dauphin.    Brenda Blethyn plays Joan with a broad Yorkshire accent and can’t help but endear.  If she’s not a saint she remains, in her own way, a patriot.  Incidentally, the “funny” scene at her trial where she first claims sainthood and then tries to plead her belly is a reminder that the idea of the absolute rights of the unborn child is a very very recent invention.

Jane Howell’s direction is both bold and assured here.  And it should be mentioned that the play benefits immensely from the atmospheric music of Dudley Simpson – the man who (along with Ronnie Hazelhurst), pretty much scored by televisual childhood.

Parts II and III await, meanwhile.

Here’s my review of the BBC Henry V:

Here are a few more blogs musing on this old BBC project…

BBC Henry IV, Part TWO:

But here’s my review of the BBC Henry IV Part ONE:

And the BBC Antony and Cleopatra:

And the Cymbeline:

Not to mention a somber but intensely homoerotic Coriolanus:

Here’s Comedy of Errors:

And… All’s Well That End’s Well:

Helen Mirren in the BBC As You Like It:

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